… and why I wish it hadn’t.
a review of the Elder Scrolls Online
A few years back, I worked for the chief video-games retailer in the southern hemisphere – EB Games. The shop was situated in a low socio-economic area, and the busiest shift was Tuesday afternoon because that was when the benefits came in. Most purchases were straight out of the bargain bin, or from people who had crossed town to pick up the last copy of a new release left in the city.
Our store was also often graced with the presence of a WoW subscriber*.
*Disclaimer: this was the title we bestowed upon people who would come into EB Games and, in a rare moment of social interaction, would purchase their WoW subscriptions over the counter. Sadly, they all appeared to fit a very particular stereotype, but I am in no way suggesting that every MMO partaker is like this. Just that some of you are.
You always knew who they were. They would walk into the shop with their head down, sporting a three day old beard regardless of gender, covered in cheesy-snack dust and coke stains on t’shirts that were once white, or maybe black, but have since turned a funny sort of mouldy grey. They breathed through their mouths, and would peruse the shelves coughing and snuffling into a sleeve, before turning to the smiling teenage girl behind the counter, hoping she had been replaced by someone who looked a little more like them. And it was always me behind the counter – my supervisor had an uncanny ability to spot them as they entered, and then would find an excuse to lock himself in the backroom until they left. Only then would he break out, chasing away the stench of B.O. with pine-scented air-freshener and furiously applying hand sanitiser to anything that may have been contaminated, including me.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my first impression of an MMO. It was like seeing the heroin junkie before being offered heroin. Needless to say, I’ve never touched the stuff*. However, when I was offered a key to the most recent The Elder Scrolls Online Beta I had to give it a shot. The name “Elder Scrolls” will always invoke curiosity. Bethesda could release an Elder Scrolls Dress-Up Game and I’d play it**.
*MMOs that is. Oh, and heroin. And I’ve never really been a big fan of fizzy drinks.
** Who wouldn’t?
So, I created my character. I spent an hour oohing and aahing about how pretty I could make them, and trying to decide exactly what sort of character I wanted to play, before rapidly devolving into my favourite default – High Elf who likes to blow stuff up with Fireball. I spent many fond hours on Skyrim furiously back-peddling, necking health potions while I wanted for my mana to regenerate, and I thought I could recreate the experience. They didn’t skimp on character creation either. It’s just as involved as it always has been, with the same races we all know and love. Or hate. I could even cover my High Elf in pretty filigree tattoos, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t make them glow blue like Cortana.
Eventually, I started the game and – oh look, we’re in a dungeon*. Oh look, I’m a prisoner. Oh look, at the dark, morbid scenery. Oh look, wait, what is Dumbledore doing here? See, the problem with using a voice actor with as prolific and distinctive a voice as Michael Gambon, is that people will immediately spot it, and then can’t get the thought out of their head that they have crossed into a completely different fandom and they’ll soon run into Harry Potter playing Quidditch. It sort of takes away the severity of the situation.
As soon as I was free from captivity, the first thing I did – like every other Elder Scrolls game I have ever played – was to attempt to loot every single body and chest I could find in the immediate area. Imagine the disappointment when I discovered that I was only able to loot very specific dead bodies, and it was never clear exactly what dead bodies I was able to loot. The same went for chests and – to my utter dismay – flowers. What is Elder Scrolls without the ability to skip through the country-side, ripping wings off butterflies, snatching fish out of the water, and generally sucking the area dry until there is not a single bud in bloom? Where is the immersion without the ability to shove every little piece of worthless crap in my seemingly bottomless backpack until, through some great feet of Tamriel physics, I’m hording over a hundred bottles of potions and fifty cast-iron kettles? How dare they take it away from me!
Feeling a little despondent, I manage through the dungeon and immediately look up. After the spectacle of the Skyrim night sky, I was almost expecting some sort of laser-light show that caused an epileptic seizure. Something with meteors and comets and exploding stars and maybe even one of those rainbow glitter curtains. Instead I was only greeted with a boring smudge of cloud. Even the sea looked a little lack-lustre, lazily lapping at the sand like it couldn’t give a damn. Likewise, the music was instantly forgettable. This year, YouTube will not be filled with renditions of the ESO soundtrack. It’s just back to looking at cats.
I was beginning to accept that all the little things that I loved from the Elder Scrolls were going to be snatched away from me. So I focused on the bigger picture – but unfortunately I was only met with a bigger disappointment. Was I enjoying this game? The answer was a very clear no. I found the game-play repetitive, the graphics were not awe-inspiring, the dialogue was skippable, and the controls felt a little wooden. Granted, it’s a Beta – I shouldn’t be expecting perfection – but after the outstanding success of Skyrim, I did expect something that would leave me anticipating the final release. The storyline is very playable, but I can’t help but feel it’s been wasted in this context.
Perhaps, I wondered, it is because I am not an MMO fan. This is a very different game genre to what I’m used to – and I shouldn’t expect the same experience as Skyrim and Morrowind. But when I asked those who do play World of Warcraft, or any of the other popular communities, they all said pretty much the same thing.
It’s not awful, it’s just not really that great. Unfortunately, being ‘not great’ in an online context will be a death sentence. With World of Warcraft still taking 50% of the genre’s subscribers, Bethesda needed something spectacular to bring in the crowds that would make them the money. This venture was always going to be a risk, but the community generally had faith. If any license could get away with it, it would be the Elder Scrolls. And I so want it to be true. However, it’s not true for me.
Instead I now have to wait patiently for their next big project. As much as I’d love the next Skyrim, I think it’s about damn time for Fallout 4.
The trailer was pretty wicked though…